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About 21st Century Diplomacy

21st Century Diplomacy: Foreign Policy is Climate Policy

Climate change will upend the 21st century world order. It will redefine how we live and work, and change the systems of production, trade, economics, and finance. Even now, in the midst of a global pandemic, it is clear that climate change will be the defining issue of this century. In fact, COVID-19 has only underscored the inadequacy of our responses to global crises and heightened the urgency of this call to action. 21st century diplomacy will have to raise climate ambition, shape the transformative systems change needed, and promote and facilitate new modes of multilateral collaboration.

Yet, the world is woefully unprepared for the cascading impacts of climate change. We have not even begun to recalibrate our lives, our economies, or our policies on the scale required. Year after year, we stand in awe of the record-breaking wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, and floods across the globe, as if the previous year hadn’t sent up its own warning flares. In many countries, climate change is still largely regarded as primarily an environmental issue. In some key leadership circles and constituencies, even the basic science is questioned. It is far past time for all public diplomacy leaders to join the environment ministries, mayors, conservation groups, forward-thinking private companies, and burgeoning youth movements in taking steps to address climate change.

Climate change is doing more than bleaching coral reefs, stranding polar bears, and causing big storms (all of these things on their own a cause for concern). It is driving change as fundamental as where people can live and where their food comes from, altering the balance of power, stranding assets, changing capital flows, and deepening inequity in the process. These fundamental changes and the associated risks demand leadership and custodians that steer global transformation processes.

This transformative agenda has its global political foundation with the Paris Agreement (decarbonizing the world) and the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda (managing a just transition and introducing a global circular economy). Leaders of more than 190 nations agreed to these sweeping programs for change only a few years ago. Recent initiatives like the European Union’s Green Deal and UN and domestic efforts to build back better in response to COVID-19 promise growing political ambition.

Over the last decade, foreign policy institutions have taken steps to better understand climate risks and inform action. At the UN Security Council (UNSC), the United Kingdom, Germany, and Sweden have elevated climate risks on the UN global security agenda. The German Foreign Office commissioned a global climate risk assessment, and Small Islands Developing States continue to urge incoming Security Council Members to address climate change and recognize that it poses an existential threat to their countries. The European Union developed a climate diplomacy strategy to (1) advocate for climate change as a strategic priority in diplomatic dialogues; (2) support implementation of the Paris Agreement in the context of low-emission and climate resilient development; and, (3) increase efforts to address the nexus between climate, natural resources, prosperity, stability, and migration.

But more is needed. For the past decade, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report consistently identified environmental degradation and climate change related impacts as among the most severe and likely risks facing the globe. The ambition and scale of diplomacy in the 21st century must match the magnitude and likelihood of these risks.

It will not be easy. The worsening climate crisis and efforts towards transformative change are further compounded by the governance crisis we see around the world. Rising populism, increased nationalism, and fear-driven insularity are undermining the very tools required to chip away at the risks posed by climate change. A coordinated, global response is the only effective means to stem the coming crisis. A response that is not dependent on political parties or single ministries or agencies; rather, one that is taken up and addressed across agencies and the full political spectrum. Absorbing the impacts of climate change will require agility on the part of financial institutions, new supply chains and trade partners, alternative migration pathways, the unpacking of decarbonization and its impacts and, perhaps most importantly, new modes of cooperation. Against this background, the foreign policy implications of climate change and climate policy are all encompassing, cutting across portfolios and calling for an all hands on deck response.

Efforts to mitigate climate change must be firmly ensconced in broader governing bodies and regulatory institutions. The world has set course for a future where temperatures are 3-4°C higher by the end of the century. Set against the 1.1°C rise experienced since the industrial revolution, our current trajectory should be setting off alarm bells in every corner of the globe. To limit temperature rise to 1.5°- 2°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100 (the goal set forth by the Paris Agreement), not only will we have to reduce global emissions to net zero, we will need to pursue negative emissions. Deploying the technologies required to achieve negative emissions, like carbon dioxide removal or solar radiation management, brings into the equation a host of questions that, if left unanswered, could further exacerbate the impacts of the very phenomenon they seek to keep at bay and spark their own crisis.

To chart a new course forward, the Wilson Center and adelphi invited a diverse set of foreign policy leaders, analysts, and thematic experts from around the globe to elucidate the connections between climate change and broader foreign policy objectives. What are the challenges ahead? And perhaps more importantly, where are the opportunities for driving transformative change towards a decarbonized world that is both more prosperous and more equitable?

We asked contributors to provide insights on new modes of multilateralism, the steps needed to prevent risky interventions into the earth system, and how to steer a process that will redefine the landscape of global leadership. Our authors have explored how central banks, insurers, and financial regulators need to account for climate risk, and how climate change affects the future of equity and democracy.

Our hope is that these ideas will spark debate and action among foreign policymakers and analysts to expand the diplomatic toolbox and make climate policy an essential tool for 21st century diplomacy. Global stability and prosperity depend on limiting the climate crisis and attenuating its impacts. Our success in meeting this challenge depends on unprecedented global collaboration, the achievements of which must become the North Star of diplomacy. Because Foreign Policy is Climate Policy.

Alexander Carius (adelphi)                              Lauren Risi  (Wilson Center)

The Wilson Center, chartered by Congress in 1968 as the official memorial to President Woodrow Wilson, is the nation’s key non-partisan policy forum for tackling global issues through independent research and open dialogue to inform actionable ideas for the policy community.

The Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to foreign policy and security.

adelphi is an independent Berlin-based think tank for applied research, policy analysis, and public policy consultancy on global environmental change. We inform policy processes and facilitate dialogue to foster transformative change towards a sustainable future.

The Climate Diplomacy initiative is a collaborative effort of adelphi and the German Federal Foreign Office. It aims at advocating climate change as astrategic priority in public diplomacy and addressing thenexus between climate change, conflict and peace.


This project was financed by the German Federal Foreign Office and the Wilson Center. The analysis, results, and recommendations shared in the articles represent the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily representative of the position of any of the partner organizations.